A History of Saint Cecilia Parish

Saint Cecilia Cathedral, 701 N. 40th St., North Omaha, Nebraska

One of Omaha’s most iconic architectural gems suffers from misunderstandings about its age. Rather than being a 20th century success story, it began with humble suburban roots and rose slowly to its citywide prominence. This is a history of the Saint Cecilia Parish, including the Cathedral and School.

Growing Up In a Suburb

Starting in 1887 in a little church at 4117 Hamilton Avenue, the first St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church was a wooden structure with a 30 foot bell tower. It was a humble building for a humble community centered at the intersection of 40th and Hamilton, which was the center point for the modern-day Orchard Hill, Walnut Hill, Bemis Park and Clifton Hill neighborhoods. Named after Saint Cecilia, a Roman virgin martyr in third century Rome, the parish was the eighth in Omaha.

At that point, these neighborhoods were located high up in the western hills of Omaha and were far away from downtown. People who owned houses there had wide open spaces with few trees, no sidewalks, and few services. Located down the street from a drug store, livery, and fire station, St. Cecilia was one of the few churches serving the area, others including Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians. It was also nearby the Belt Line Railway, which made it convenient for Catholics in the surrounding region, including the Omaha View and Bedford Park neighborhoods, to ride into mass.

In 1888, the original St. Cecilia Church was dedicated as “a beautiful little chapel,” according to the Daily Bee. Measuring 54×42, the altar was 14′ tall and made of white ash. The newspaper reported, “A very expensive organ made by Sebastian Buscher, of Chicago, was presented to the church by Mr. John Creighton.”

William Stein, a local businessman who would soon own a two-story brick building on the northwest corner of 40th and Hamilton, bought much of the land from the Taggart family in 1896. In 1898 their lease on the land expired, and Stein made a verbal agreement to extend the lease. Nervous because of their handshake rights to the land where the church sat, parish leaders decided to move the building to new land the church owned outright. In 1904, the church building was moved from North 41st and Hamilton to North 40th and Page Streets, facing the new cathedral when construction started.

Supporting the pioneer era St. Catherine’s Academy downtown, the church was home to the St. Cecilia Choristers who performed at their commencement addresses.

New Land, an Old Building, and Grandeur

This is a 1918 image of St Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska. Image courtesy of the Durham Museum.
This is a 1918 image of St Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska. Image courtesy of the Durham Museum.

Sitting on four acres, the new parish facility grew slowly over the years. The old church stood strong for more than a decade and served the parish well for those years. However, the parish priest had established a construction fund for a new building that would soon be put to use.

Bishop Richard Scannell (1845-1916) declared that the new site would become home to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha’s new cathedral in 1901. Soon after, Thomas Rogers Kimball (1862-1934) was hired as the architect to designed the massive building. Kimball was not only the premier architect in Omaha, but is widely recognized as one of the greatest designers in American history, and today St. Cecilia Cathedral is considered his master work.

In 1905, the cathedral construction committee approved of plans. However, they were a frugal bunch who also agreed with Bishop Scannell who didn’t want the Archdiocese to go into debt making the new building. Everyone agreed construction would only proceed as money was made available, and the next several decades would show the outcome of that approach.

Located at 701 North 40th Street, the cathedral was sited at the top of Omaha’s most prominent ridge in the central core of the city. At 1,200 feet above sea level, St. Cecilia’s sits on the highest hill in this area of Omaha. According to the parish’s history, “The majority of the clergy and people, however, did not favor the location because they said it was ‘too far out.’ The cathedral, which was to serve all, should be available to all, not ‘out in the country.'”

According to one report, “most of the bishops and archbishops of the Middle West” attended the laying of the cornerstone on October 6, 1907. There were reportedly 30,000 people in attendance during the ceremony.

While construction on the facility began, it took almost a decade for services to be held there. In 1916, the first mass was held in the partially constructed cathedral. During that time, Catholics across Omaha were urged to buy homes in the newly growing neighborhood to ensure the area’s success.

Kimball chose the Spanish Renaissance Revival style for his design. It was an interesting choice for the plans made in 1904 because it was no fewer than a decade ahead of its time, when the style became popular nationwide. Designed with a steel frame covered in limestone blocks, the building was intended to be fireproof.

This is an image of the November 21, 1917 destruction of the original St. Cecilia Catholic Church at N. 40th and Page Streets in North Omaha, Nebraska. It was caused by a windstorm.
This is an image of the November 21, 1917 destruction of the original St. Cecilia Catholic Church at N. 40th and Page Streets. It was caused by a windstorm.

November 21, 1917 when the scaffolding used to raise the south bell tower was blown off the building and crushed the small church. The Omaha World Herald ran a front page photo and brief story the next day.

Consecrated in 1959, it took 54 years for the cathedral to be finished.

Efforts to maintain and sustain the cathedral have been present and ongoing throughout its existence. In 1988, the Archdiocese added night time lighting to the cathedral, emphasizing its grandeur and beauty at all hours. The entire building was restored in 1998, with thorough treatment for the interior and exterior of the building. Exterior niche statues were added in 2002, and a magnificent new organ was installed in 2003. Built by Pasi Organ Builders, it has unique features unlike any other instrument of its kind in the region. A new Mass altar was added in 2005.

Features of the Building

A priest and a woman stand at the door of St. Cecilia Grade School in North Omaha, Nebraska, in 1989. Pic courtesy of Durham Museum.
A priest and a woman stand at the door of St. Cecilia Grade School in 1989. Pic courtesy of Durham Museum.

The St. Cecilia Cathedral has a lot of phenomenal features that call the attention of architecture fans everywhere. From the outset, the plaza and front steps of the building draw the viewer into the facility. Walking into the church, the narthex just inside the doors immediately branches into two unique spaces: On the right is a shrine honoring labor showing Saint Joseph with the boy Jesus, and windows showing the Saints James the Apostle and Joseph. On the left is the Christ the King Shrine and the Saints Richard and Jeremiah windows. Another shrine in the building honors Saint Jude.

The building has an alcove for St. Anne, mother of the Blessed Mother, and child Mary. There are statues of Mary and Joseph, the Infant of Prague, Virgin of the Corn, Our Lady of Grace, and of the apostles. There are murals of the Blessed Felix De Andreis, Saint Frances Cabrini, Jesuit North American Martyrs, and Saint Philippine Duchesne. Other windows in the church show Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat, Saints Alphonsus Liguori and Ignatius Loyola, Saint Clare, Saints Benedict and Augustine, Saint Euphrasia Pelletier, Saints Francis of Assisi and Columban.

There are 52 stained glass windows throughout St. Cecilia’s. The South Clerestory singing windows honor Veni Sancti Spiritus, Pange Lingua, Dies Irae-Dies Illa, and Te Deum; the North Clerestory singing windows show Magnificat, Gloria in Excelsis Deo and Stabat Mater. There are nine rosary windows and Our Lady of Nebraska Chapel, and three stained glass windows from the 16th century Cathedral of Pamplona in Spain. There is a rose window with Saint Cecilia. The Nash Chapel was a gift of Catherine Barbeau Nash. It has Arabesque designs throughout, and the Our Lady of Nebraska Chapel holds the stained glass windows repurposed from a 16th-century Spanish cathedral. Kimball designed the building to have four chapels, but without enough funds only two were built.

There is an Antiphonal Choir riser; bronze Stations of the Cross; and an altar rail made of bronze with cararra marble altar. The High Altar Crucifix and Cathedra sit at the front with a pulpit showing the Saints Peter and Paul and Four Doctors of the Church, Saints Jerome, Gregory the Great, Ambrose, and Augustine.

A crypt below the Cathedral has 38 vaults.

Opening the St. Cecilia Cathedral School

Saint Cecilia School, 3869 Webster Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
Saint Cecilia’s School opened in 1907 at North 39th and Webster Streets.

Founded by Dominican, the St. Cecilia Cathedral School has variated and changed over the years.

The day after the cornerstone of the cathedral was laid, October 7, 1907, the new St. Cecilia School opened for students. Four nuns taught classes in four classrooms, and six students were in the first graduating eighth grade class in 1908.

According to the church, “for seventy-five years there was a Cathedral High School, which served as a diocesan high school for nearly 50 years.” It didn’t open until 1919, with the first graduating class in 1923.

The Monsignor Ernest Graham Building was opened in 1949-1950 school year. The expanded, and now only, school building opened in 1954. In the middle fifties to the early sixties the student population of both schools numbered 1,500.

St. Cecilia’s Cathedral Today

This is a 1933 postcard of St. Cecilia's Cathedral at night. Note the unfinished bell towers.
This is a 1933 postcard of St. Cecilia’s Cathedral at night. Note the unfinished bell towers.

Today, according to the City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission, St. Cecilia’s Cathedral is recognized as “a fine and exceptionally early example of the Spanish Renaissance Revival style.” When it was finished in 1959, St. Cecilia’s was one of the 10 largest cathedrals in the US. It has been widely acknowledged for its historical relevance. For instance, in January 1979 the National Parks Service listed it on the National Register of Historic Places, and in May 1979 it was designated as an official Omaha Landmark.

The twin cupolas on its twin bell towers stand tall above the Gold Coast Historic District today, providing a beacon for the city more than a century after the building began construction. The area around the cathedral is filled with historical landmarks, including the Bemis Park Landmark Heritage District, the former Walnut Hill Reservoir, Prospect Hill Cemetery, and several notable historic neighborhoods including Walnut Hill, Clifton Hill, Orchard Hill, and Gifford Park. The historic Duchesne Academy and the former Nebraska School for the Deaf are close, too.

Today, mass is held regularly, the school operates in full force for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, and the Saint Cecilia Cathedral Choir is a popular highlight of the parish. The Saint Cecilia Institute for Sacred Liturgy, Music, and the Arts is also very active, teaching more than twenty student and advanced musicians in organ, piano and other instruments annually. The Sheehan Museum of the Cultural Center is open at Cathedral throughout the week.

If you live in Omaha, go visit St. Cecilia Cathedral today. There are plenty of opportunities are available to the public to see the inside of the building all year around, and the parish makes tours available too. If you’re driving around North O, look up from where you’re at and appreciate those beautiful bell towers—because they are historic North Omaha architecture at it’s best!

Special thanks to Rev. Michael Gutgsell, pastor of St. Cecilia from 2005-2017, for his contributions to this article.

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SOURCES

BONUS

Spanish Influenced Architecture in North Omaha, Nebraska
Spanish-influence architecture in North Omaha includes the St. Cecilia Cathedral and several other structures.
A 1920s birds eye view of the Gold Coast Historic District, looking northwest from 36th and Farnam Streets in Omaha, Nebraska. Note the unfinished St. Cecilia's Cathedral in the upper right hand corner; it took 54 years to complete construction.
A 1920s birds eye view of the Gold Coast Historic District, looking northwest from 36th and Farnam. Note the unfinished St. Cecilia’s Cathedral in the upper right hand corner; it took 54 years to complete construction. Pic courtesy of Durham Museum.

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